Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Best Films of 2012: #9

Director Christian Petzold's quiet, astutely observed drama "Barbara" is set in the Stasi-controlled East Germany of 1980. As the film begins, Berlin-educated Dr. Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) arrives at her new post, a hospital in the provinces, where she's been reassigned after serving a prison term for having applied for an exit visa. Barbara is as collegial as she has to be, not a bit more. The presiding physician, Andre (appealing Ronald Zehrfeld), takes a liking to her and attempts to engage her professionally and loosen her guard, but she knows he's been groomed by Jörg, the Stasi agent (Mark Waschke) assigned to keep tabs on her.

One of the most fascinating revelations of "Barbara" is the overtness and omnipresence of the Stasi regime. Andre doesn't deny that he's reporting back to Jörg - why bother? Jörg shows up intermittently, sometimes with a female colleague who performs invasive strip-searches of Barbara. There's no element of surprise, and no expectation of privacy anywhere at any time - even in Barbara's clandestine hotel-room trysts with the boyfriend who's planning her escape to the West.

In a part that could easily come off cold and unrelatable, Hoss is riveting - you can't take your eyes off her. Yet there's nothing ostentatious about her work here; quite the contrary, Hoss resolutely underplays scenes, leaving it to the alert viewer to catch the almost imperceptible darting of the eyes and backward second glances born of constant fear and tension - and the human need to find dignity and self-definition in stolen moments and secret meanings, however small. This is one of the best performances of the year, in an impeccably seen film with a perfectly exquisite ending. Don't miss it.

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